The mundum neriyatham is the oldest surviving form of saree in the world. This traditional saree of Kerala is an important part of Malyali culture, i.e., the culture of the people residing in Kerala. It has a very distinctive look and drape and has been depicted in many ancient texts, paintings and mythological stories as being the standard sari for Malyali women.
Though till this day it is considered a classic Malyali outfit, it has inevitably been influenced by many different types of aesthetics and silhouettes in its long history. In its ancient form, the Kerala mundum neriyatham was termed the ‘Sattika’ in Jain and Buddhist literature.
Some believe that the ‘palla’ or what we today call the pallu was adapted from the Graeco-Roman palmyrene into the mundum neriyatham. Over time, the design evolved somewhat to resemble the modern saree and nivi drape more closely. In fact, some even believe that the nivi drape (the universal over the shoulder saree drape) was inspired by this traditional sari.
Many factors contribute to the distinctive look of the mundum neriyatham saree that is not seen in any other sari from India. It has a very unique drape, and, unlike other sarees, it is typically made up of two main pieces. The mundum refers to the lower garment which is draped like a dhoti or lungi; a cloth is wrapped around the legs in a complicated drape with a division between the legs (if it is the dhoti version) or without one (if it is the lungi version). The mundum is worn by men as well as women and in olden times, it was worn as a stand-alone piece (with a blouse) even by women. Over time, an upper garment called neriyatham was added, resulting in the mundum neriyatham.
This traditional and ancient saree has a unique place in the Malyali cultural heritage. Mothers have been teaching their daughters how to wear mundum neriyatham for many years and will continue to do for many more years. At the same time, this saree has also achieved national and international fame; it is today appreciated not only for its rich and ancient historical significance but also because of its unique look and appearance which is not matched by any other garment in ethnic fashion.
The mundum neriyatham might look complicated but it is actually quite easy to wear. First, the mundun is draped across the hips, below the navel, in the typical Kerala mundu drape. The upper garment called the neriyatham is tucked inside the petticoat (the thin skirt worn on the lower body under the mundum) while the other end is draped across the front torso, from the left hip to the right shoulder.
The pallu is left to flow over the shoulder, similar to the nivi style sari drape. It is worn over a distinctive type of blouse that reaches well above the chest but may not necessarily cover the shoulders. In fact, in the traditional drape, the shoulders were left bare except for the pallu; nowadays a short-sleeved, u-neck sari blouse is usually selected to wear with the mundum neriyatham saree.
It is not just the drape, but also the look of this saree that is quite distinctive. The mundum neriyatham is always made out of woven cotton in a shade of white or cream. Both the mundum and the neriyatham come with thick borders running along the edges to contrast with the white color on the main part of the fabric.
The borders are usually decorated with simple line designs but may sometimes sport floral or peacock motifs in a repeating line. The color of the blouse worn under the neriyatham always matches the hue of the borders; women can choose between many different shades, such as red, green, blue, yellow and purple.
There are three main types of the Kerala mundum neriyatham. One is the basic variety called the set mundu that is preferred for daily usage. The more elaborate and ornamental variety that is reserved for special occasions, festivals and weddings is the Kasavu Mundu which comes with large gold borders and is worn with a gold blouse.
The contrast of the bright gold borders with the creamy hue creates a very attractive look for this auspicious saree. The set veshti is a simpler version that does not have a pallu and instead comes with a small piece of cloth that covers the upper torso.
Today, the mundum neriyatham saree has transcended its geographical origins to become a classy and universally appreciated festive or wedding wear option. While some women love it for its unique drape, others appreciate its classic combinations of colors. It is also quite comfortable and allows a lot of flexibility for the wearer.
Though it has become universal trend, it is best to stick with classic south Indian jewelry when accessorizing the mundum neriyatham saree. Women can opt for intricate gold jewelry sets and gold bangles to complete this traditional look.